Public warnings by critics of Venezuela's government about possible pollution of drinking water has brought a court order that the country's news media must back up any reports on the subject with hard data.
The court order announced Thursday was condemned by a group of Venezuelan journalists and news media union leaders who called it a violation of free speech.
The Prosecutor General's Office said the court issued an order stating that news outlets should act responsibly when reporting on accusations of contaminated water. It said news reports on the subject should contain "truthful technical support backed by a competent institution."
The measure came two days after President Hugo Chavez called for judicial authorities to investigate the actions of government opponents and news organizations that had raised concerns about possible pollution in rivers and a lake that supply drinking water plants for parts of central Venezuela and Caracas.
Chavez called the claims "war propaganda" and "terrorism" by his opponents.
"It's a big lie," the president said. "We have to act with respect to this, at least open an investigation and summon those who are saying this ... to ask them for evidence."
On Wednesday, Prosecutor General Luisa Ortega said her office had opened an investigation into complaints of water contamination several days earlier at the request of three Venezuelans who complained about news coverage of the issue. Her office asked the court to step in.
Ortega defended the court order Thursday, saying it aims to ensure "objective, truthful and opportune information."
Opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles condemned the court's action, calling it highly unusual.
"The problem of pollution can't be resolved by generating decisions in the courts to cover up complaints made by the community," Capriles told reporters.
The press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders also strongly criticized the court's stance.
"This is just politically motivated censorship," the organization said in a statement. "When the authorities are unnerved by a story like this, they tend to brand it as an attempt to 'destabilize' public order. Is the public so incapable of forming its own opinion?"